The Caps played nine of their 14 October games on the road, and they earned points in eight of nine, going 7-1-1. Washington ended last month with a season-long five game road trip in which it forged a 4-0-1 record.
Florida fortified its lineup with the offseason additions of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and former Washington winger Brett Connolly, and the Cats also hired three-time Stanley Cup-winning bench boss Joel Quenneville, whose 1,650 career regular season games is second only to the legendary Scotty Bowman (2,141) on the NHL's all-time coaching ledger. With 897 career wins, Quenneville trails only Bowman on that list as well.
"A little bit more structure than they've had in the past," says Caps coach Todd Reirden of the Panthers. "Obviously, they've got one of the best goalies in the world, and they've got high-end, skilled players that can score goals. They picked up some valuable assets this summer, as well. It's not surprising to me that they only have one regulation loss in their last 11 games (6-1-4). I'm not surprised at all."
Reirden played 183 games during the course of his five-year NHL playing career, and 94 of those came under Quenneville in St. Louis, which was the first of Coach Q's four NHL coaching stops. We asked Reirden whether there were any particular earmarks that are notable of a Quenneville-coached team.
"Yeah, for sure," says Reirden. "An they're not where they need to be yet; it's a work in progress for his team as well. But you can see certain things for sure, especially when you're looking at face-off coverage and some of the things in the neutral zone that are very consistent with what he has done in the past.
Video: Todd Reirden Pregame | November 7
"But it's not totally locked down like his best teams are yet, nor is any team 20 games into the season. But you can see the difference he has made, and like I said, it doesn't surprise me. He is definitely one of the best coaches in the league."
Tighten Up - Washington has had little trouble scoring goals this season, but the Caps permitted three of more goals against in 10 of the 12 games they played from Oct. 5-29. That they managed a 7-2-3 record in those games speaks volumes about the Capitals' offensive attack.
But they've limited foes to two or fewer in two straight games, which is obviously a positive development.
"Really, the bottom for us was Edmonton [on Oct. 24]," says Reirden. "That's when we were at our worst in terms of giving up way too many high-quality chances and odd-man rushes and opportunities that came from that game. We had a meeting the next morning, and I think since then it's gotten better. It's part of the process you're going to have to go through sometimes where you learn some hard lessons, and we definitely did that. We're continuing to figure out and get more comfortable doing what we do."
Typically, teams that win the Stanley Cup are found among the top five or 10 teams in fewest goals allowed during the regular season. The Caps were an outlier from that trend when they won it all in 2018, and they slipped a bit in that regard last season.
When Washington started the current campaign without Michal Kempny in the lineup, it opened with only two defensemen - John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov - who had been on the team at the outset of last season. With Kempny's return, Washington's blueliners are now slotted in more favorable positions and pairings, with no one playing on their off side. They've grown more accustomed to their current partners, and to some of the new wrinkles the Caps have introduced to their system this season.
"I think a lot of change, you learn from mistakes and you learn from seeing it and feeling it," says Caps defenseman John Carlson. "We've been a little spotty with certain areas, and that's kind of always changing, and that's kind of normal, I guess. It's always a moving target as to what you need to improve upon.
"But I think everyone has a good feel. Guys have done it, had reps, made mistakes, done it right, and then noticed a difference. Two games ago [against Buffalo] when we would go up like that [by four goals in the first period] it was probably a little hard to talk about a total defensive effort, but last game I think we played better in that area than we have in a long time."
Slate - In October Washington faced a road-heavy and Western Conference-laced schedule. This month, the Caps play nine of their 14 games on home ice, but will play only two Metropolitan Division foes, both on the road.
Video: Rinkside Update | Evgeny Kuznetsov
Early in the season, the Caps are taking on mostly Western Conference and Atlantic Division teams. By the time they get through their first six games of December, they will have played 17 of their total of 30 games against Western foes, and 11 of the 24 games they will play against the Atlantic Division. But they will have played only six of what will be 28 games against their fellow Metro Division denizens.
"When you look at the schedule," says Reirden, "you can break it down in a number of different ways, and you look at positives and negatives of every scenario. That's one of the things that can happen. If you look at it from the outside, that would definitely set us up to be in better structure when we are playing games that are technically four-point games if you want to go down that road.
"With that being said, it's also new opponents for us that we're not as familiar with, and it's been good at least when we've seen them a couple of times. Like Calgary we've seen twice and obviously Dallas we saw [twice] really quickly. So we've been able to pick up at least some systems stuff from those teams, and at least be able to figure out how we could combat some of the stuff they're trying to do. Our staff does such a good job of looking at those details that can give us success. That's the advantage to it as well."
Teams typically aren't at their best in the early going of the season, either. It takes time for everyone to get back into game shape and the rhythm of the season, to integrate and acclimate new players, to adjust to any new changes or tweaks in the system or style, and to forge a coherent team identity.
That being the case, it may be better for the Caps to play the lion's share of their Metro Division slate after they've cleared all or most of those hurdles.
"I think that's a good thing," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "Especially when you're rolling into the playoffs, you want to be playing as intense of a style of hockey as you can be, and that usually comes from division rivalries, battles in the standings, or that sort of thing. So I think that's definitely a good way to do the schedule."
Video: Two-Man Advantage | November 7
In The Nets - Thursday's netminding match-up features a pair of former Vezina Trophy winners, each of whom has righted himself after a somewhat rugged start to the season. After Ilya Samsonov became the first Caps goalie and the 18th goalie in league history to win each of his first five starts with Sunday's 4-2 over Calgary, Holtby will be back in net for Washington against the Panthers.
In his last six games, Holtby is 5-0-1 with a 2.62 GAA and a .923 save pct. Lifetime against the Panthers, Holtby is 10-2-2 with a shutout, a 2.78 GAA and a .906 save pct.
Bobrovsky had a rocky early start with the Cats, losing two of his first three starts, allowing at least three goals in each, and getting pulled from the third of those three. But since then, he has helped his team earn at least a point in eight straight starts (5-0-3). During that stretch covering eight starts and a brief relief outing, Bobrovsky has fashioned a 2.98 GAA and an .890 save pct. While those qualitative numbers are well south of Bobrovsky's career norms, they're better than his overall 3.36 GAA and .882 save pct. on the season.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Bobrovsky is 9-11-4 with a shutout, a 2.90 GAA and a .904 save pct.
All Lined Up - This is how we expect the Caps and the Cats to look on Thursday night they face off at the BB&T Center for the first of their three meetings this season:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 21-Hathaway
28-Leipsic, 18-Stephenson, 72-Boyd
14-Panik (upper body)
11-Huberdeau, 16-Barkov, 63-Dadonov
68-Hoffman, 9-Boyle, 10-Connolly
77-Vatrano, 62-Malgin, 13-Pysyk
73-Hunt, 47-Toninato, 7-Sceviour
8-Hawryluk (upper body)